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The Shadows of Versailles

Author Cathie Dunn reveals the Sun King's opulent, scandalous court

I discovered historical fiction as a middle schooler living in Germany. Whenever we found an English-language bookshop, I bought as many historical romances as I could. My favorite  topic? The Versailles court of French King Louis XIV (‘the Sun King’). I’m very excited to return to this intriguing era with author Cathie Dunn on the blog this week. Her new novel, The Shadows of Versailles, brings the opulence, scheming, romance, and treachery of the court to vivid life.

Cathie’s novel reveals the story behind a massive scandal at the court—the ‘Affair of the Poisons.’ It also skillfully portrays the world of Parisians whose lives are touched in various ways by the scandal and by the Sun King’s court itself. In The Shadows of Versailles, when young Fleur is seduced by a handsome courtier in the shadows of the glittering new palace at Versailles, little does she know that her life will take a dramatic turn that leads her down a dark path…

Welcome to the blog, Cathie!

AM: What’s the tagline or super-short blurb description (“elevator pitch”) for your book?

CD: Dazzled by Versailles. Broken by tragedy. Consumed by revenge.

AM: How did you come up with the idea for your book?

CD: Many years ago, I read a wonderful novel by Judith Merkle Riley called ‘The Oracle Glass’. It was the first time I’d heard about The Affair of the Poisons, an event that shocked the court of King Louis XIV. Not only were many ordinary people in Paris – fortune-tellers, midwives, alchemists, lawyers – implicated, but also eminent persons close to the king. Too close for comfort!

AM: What inspired you to write about that particular era or character?

CD: I’ve always been fascinated by the court of Louis XIV, and I wanted to show not only the glamorous side of his fancy new palace at Versailles, but also the poverty and despair of crime-ridden Paris.

AM: How did you create a realistic setting for your story?

CD: I had the pleasure to visit Versailles again (thirty years after the first time) in August 2019 and took many photos. I also bought a rather weighty catalogue with many images and descriptions. In addition, I researched online for sketches of Versailles and Paris, and I bought non-fiction books about the Sun King and the Affair of the Poisons. In combination, these allowed me to create a fairly realistic environment for Fleur, Jacques, and the others.

AM: What surprised you in the course of your research?

CD: I discovered how much Louis XIV hated Paris. Whilst he spent a fortune on expanding the old hunting lodge of Versailles into a lavish, luxurious palace, ordinary people in Paris were starving. High taxation across the country led to desperate crimes which were punished harshly.

These circumstances enabled a vibrant network of fortune-tellers who were frequented not only by ordinary people, but also by lords and ladies from court. These peddled harmless potions – to gain the love of a person or their patronage – but then they turned to selling poisons. It was a fascinating but scary time as some sought to rid themselves of unwanted relatives – and even the king!

AM: Do your research findings guide the plot, or do you plan out the plot first and flesh it out with research? (Or perhaps both?)

CD: I begin with a rough outline of the plot, and then add sub-plots as I go along. I’m highly influenced by research. It’s amazing how much you discover when you read up about a topic you thought you knew much about. It’s those little gems that add to a plot.

Also, sometimes characters want to go down their own path. Fleur is such a character. Her fate changed dramatically from when I started out with her story.

AM: What is your usual writing routine?

CD: I work better in the afternoon and the early evening, so I focus on editing and social media promotions for my books in the mornings.

AM: Do you have any tips for other writers about historical fiction research?

CD: Always check from a range of sources, and don’t believe anything you find on the internet without questioning it, especially from Wikipedia. Use your artistic license as a writer wisely.

AM: Do you prefer to write in silence or with background music? If music, what kind and why?

CD: I like to write in silence, although sometimes I enjoy music too. Writing The Affair of the Poisons series, I listen to classical music that was around in the late 17th century. When I write medieval, I enjoy Mediæval Babes or Gregorian chants, and with my Scottish romances, I prefer Clannad or Capercaillie.

AM: Who are some of your favorite authors/books?

CD: Oh, how long have we got? My favourite novel is Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier. I also love the late Sharon Penman’s novels. They’re so evocative of their time. Elizabeth Chadwick is another favourite author, as was Judith Merkle Riley. And I enjoy Candace Robb’s medieval mysteries. Matthew Harffy and Bernard Cornwell are also high on my list with their adventures.

AM: Why do you write historical fiction?

CD: I’ve always loved reading historical fiction, usually with a touch of romance, mystery, and lots of adventure. Those stories take me away to the past, and, having grown up surrounded by medieval castle ruins which I still love to explore, I always envisage life ‘back in those days’.

By creating my own stories – adventure, mystery, romance – I feel I’m giving back a little bit to all those fabulous ruins, castles and palaces, and to the people who lived in them.

AM: What do you have planned for your next writing project?

CD: I’m currently working on The Alchemist’s Daughter, the second in my Affair of the Poisons series. Timeline-wise, it loosely crosses over into The Shadows of Versailles, before it moves on in time.

I’ve also begun a dual-timeline story, set in Normandy at the time of Rollo the Viking, and in 2018. Exciting days!

AM: What do you enjoy doing when you’re not writing?

I love reading, walking our dog, Ellie, and visiting castles and ruins (hopefully soon again).

Thank you very much, Amy, for your wonderful questions, and for hosting me on your lovely blog.

AM: Thank you, Cathie. It’s been a pleasure!

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